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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Phantasy for Piano Quartet in f-sharp minor, H34 (1910) [13:25]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Piano Quartet in one movement (1922) [12:40]
Ian WILSON (b.1964) Noct for Piano Quartet (2011) [13:47]
William WALTON (1902-1983) Piano Quartet in d minor (1919) [30:24]
Cappa Ensemble (Bartosz Woroch (violin), Adam Newman (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello), Michael McHale (piano))
rec. 27-29 August 2012, Curtis Auditorium, CIT Cork School of Music. DDD.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6230 [70:19]


 
Prior to writing this review I’d just submitted my thoughts on the other Nimbus CD which arrived in the post with it, a 30-track reissue of music recorded by The Four Freshmen in their heyday from 1951 to 1960. It was immaculately transferred and their music-making is still very well worth hearing (RTR4219). Together these two discs are a reminder of what a versatile range of repertoire the folk at Wyastone Leys cover.
 
The Britten centenary gives us an opportunity to get to know the music of his mentor, Frank Bridge, much better. Nimbus are certainly doing their bit in that regard: last year they released a recording of the Phantasy Piano Quartet on another Alliance recording, NI6183. There it’s coupled with the Walton, as here, and Guillaume Lekeu’s Piano Quartet of 1893 in performances by the Frith Piano Quintet. Jonathan Woolf liked that performance better than their rivals, the London Bridge Ensemble, on Dutton, but, though happy with the Frith Quartet, preferred the Maggini Quartet with Martin Roscoe on Naxos to either – review. Paul Godfrey was even more impressed with a performance in sparkling form – review.
 
My own benchmark for the Bridge is the recording from the Dartington Piano Trio with Patrick Ireland (viola) on a budget Hyperion Helios recording (CDH55063, with the Phantasie Trio and Trio No.2), recommended by Rob Barnett – here – and included with other recordings of Bridge in what I described as a treasure trove of English chamber music in my 2013/4 Download News.
 
The music is dramatic and rhapsodic by turns and, though the work is not particularly memorable, Bridge had developed an individual voice that’s well worth listening to. Nimbus contain the whole work on one track, Hyperion track the sections separately. In terms of performance and recording there’s very little to choose between the two, with each capturing both the drama – perhaps a little more of this on Hyperion – and the rhapsody. The Hyperion is inexpensive, especially if downloaded from hyperion-records.co.uk for £5.99 (mp3 or lossless), though the Nimbus recording won’t break the bank if purchased from MusicWeb International, currently for £12, post free – here – and many will prefer the all-Bridge programme. Both booklets are helpful and informative, though the Hyperion is shorter than usual, with just two pages of notes.
 
To the best of my knowledge there’s only one current rival recording of the Bax, more adventurously coupled with music by Dunhill, Hurlstone and Quilter (Primrose Piano Quartet, Meridian CDE84519: Recording of the Month – review). You may find the Meridian recording hard to come by, but it’s available as a CD or download from amazon.co.uk – here – and it can be downloaded for £4.20 or less from emusic.com – here. I didn’t have access to this recording and it’s not available from the otherwise invaluable Naxos Music Library, but Spotify came to the rescue – it’s amazing what a wide-ranging repertoire they have and very handy for making comparisons, though the ads on the free version are rather annoying. Fortunately the Bax is in one movement, so there are no ads between movements. There’s plenty of drama, even aggression, in the music and less of the contrasting repose present in the Bridge; whenever the music is allowed to breathe a little, the mood soon intensifies again. The Primrose Quartet are a little more urgent, though without sounding over-aggressive, completing the quartet in 11:26 against 12:40 on the new Nimbus recording. In practice, there’s much less difference than those timings would suggest so, again, if the Nimbus coupling appeals then go for it.
 
The novelty on the new recording is provided by Ian Wilson’s Noct, a work commissioned by the Cappa Ensemble, so there’s every reason to regard their performance as authoritative, with no benchmark against which to judge. I wouldn’t purchase the CD for this alone but it’s certainly not out of place among these works of a century or so earlier – those with a phobia of the avant-garde need have no fears. Here is a talented young composer of whom I’d like to hear more.
 
I had expected to find the Walton Piano Quartet better provided for in the catalogue than the six recordings which seem currently to be generally available. Jonathan Woolf and Paul Godfrey both liked the Frith on the earlier Nimbus disc, though both had reservations about whether potential buyers would want the Lekeu coupling. Certainly the Bax single-movement quartet makes a more logical partner, unless you followed Rob Barnett’s advice and bought the Meridian recording of that work, listed above.
 
There are also front runners from the Maggini Quartet and Peter Donohoe, with the String Quartet (1947) – keen value on Naxos 8.554646 at budget price – and the Nash Ensemble, with other Walton works, on Hyperion CDA67340. Comparing these in my May 2012/1 Download Roundup, I wrote that both these competing recordings of the Piano Quartet are excellent. Both come with informative booklets and both are offered in good mp3. That said, the Hyperion coupling is more varied and more generously coupled – especially attractive if you already have a version of the String Quartet – and Hyperion’s lossless sound can be yours for the same price as the mp3. These remain obvious choices for anyone seeking an all-Walton programme.
 
The Cappa Ensemble take the opening allegramente at a cracking pace, slightly faster than the Nash Ensemble and only very slightly slower than the Magginis, and the music benefits. The second movement, too, allegro scherzando, is also a little faster than the Nash version and only slightly slower than the Maggini; again, the music goes with an appealing swing without sounding helter-skelter. In the remaining two movements the Cappa players are a little slower than either of their rivals; in the third movement they achieve a real andante tranquillo without failing to match the allegro molto marking of the finale. In the event I didn’t need to nit-pick by making detailed comparisons with my benchmarks, though I listened to the Maggini version soon after with equal satisfaction.
 
Even setting aside the Ian Wilson work, of which there is no rival recording, no other CD duplicates these three works from the early twentieth century and though an all-Bridge or an all-Walton programme might be more to your liking, there are good reasons for having the Bridge, Bax and Walton together. While individual rivals may be slightly preferable in some respects, there’s never much in it and there’s the additional attraction of discovering a talented young group of performers. With very good recording throughout and informative notes, this is a fine addition to the roster of Nimbus Alliance recordings.
 
Brian Wilson
 

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